Ubuntu. A Comparative Study of an African Concept of Justice

Nnodim, Paul; Okigbo, Austin
Anzahl Seiten
312 S.
Rezensiert für Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists von
Constanze Blum, Research Institute Social Cohesion (RISC), Leipzig University

Mentioning “ubuntu” in Southern Africa in 2024 often evokes cynicism. Against the backdrop of the high social inequalities in the region, the impact that this “magic word” has on citizens’ lives is increasingly being questioned. Still, the term continues to be frequently used to express aspirations for social cohesion and societal harmony, although understandings of what this means and how it can be achieved is not always uniform.

This diversity of understanding “ubuntu” is fleshed out very well in the timely volume edited by the two US-based academics Paul Nnodim (professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts) and Austin C. Okigbo (associate professor at the College of Music and affiliate faculty in Ethnic Studies and Global Health at the University of Colorado Boulder). It addresses a critical gap in philosophy and African studies by engaging with ubuntu and other indigenous African concepts relating to justice. The e-book totals 250 pages and is divided into an introduction, ten chapters, and a conclusion. It brings together authors from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds who investigate various dimensions and interpretations of ubuntu and compare it to alternative “Western” concepts as well as to similar principles from across the African continent.

In chapter 1, David Lutz investigates the differences between “Western” liberal individualism and ubuntu. In chapter 2, Nnodim and Okigbo engage with John Rawl’s conceptualization of justice in relation to ubuntu. Thaddeus Metz explores what the global economic system would look like if relational values were infused more systematically into it (chapter 3). Leyla Tavernaro-Haidarian’s chapter 4 juxtaposes and compares the “human-centred” ubuntu ethics and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which she conceives of as an extension of the Western development paradigm. In chapter 5, Emmanuel-Lugard Nduka engages with journalism ethics by addressing the articulation of ubuntu in global media. Several chapters contrast ubuntu with similar philosophies elsewhere on the continent, such as Joseph Kunnuji’s chapter on Ogu musical culture and ubuntu (chapter 6), Damascus Kafumbe’s contribution on Kiganga court songs (chapter 7), and Levi Nkwocha’s “Ubuntu, Ofo na Ogu, and palaver among the Igbo of West Africa” (chapter 8). The edited volume also addresses the issue of politicization and includes a more critical analysis on how ubuntu has been utilized as political rhetoric in Brahim El Guabli’s chapter on transitional justice in Morocco (chapter 9). Particularly captivating is Aboubacar Dakuyo’s work on South Sudan and the “Ubuntu-like” concepts of Cieng of the Dinka and of Ciang of the Nuer (chapter 10). The editors provide a parenthesis to the chapter collection in form of an introduction and conclusion. Unfortunately, the conclusion largely repeats the content of the introduction and does not provide additional impulses for conceptualization. The editors’ approach to ubuntu is significantly influenced by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Numerous references to this global persona can be found throughout the volume, starting with the book’s dedication, and continuing in the form of selected Tutu quotes and references in various chapters as well as in the conclusion. This sets the tone for the specific framing of ubuntu, which appears to be a logical choice given that the archbishop was one of its most popular proponents, especially with regard to transitional justice.

The edited volume provides a rich tour d’horizon of a concept that has often been either ignored or disregarded as “folklorist”. The editors and contributing authors do an important job in placing this African concept on the radar across their various disciplines. The edited volume is produced on the premise that “Ubuntu as a philosophy or ethical practice has not been fleshed out enough in contemporary philosophical scholarship” (p. 14). Indeed, this is a glaring blind spot. Among other things, the editors attribute this to the linguistic difficulty of rendering in English or any other Western language the meaning of this “culturally deep-rooted” concept (p. 13). The edited volume tackles this challenge by producing a multidisciplinary ubuntu anthology that addresses the term’s nuances across various African cultures. It contributes to ongoing efforts of bringing indigenous knowledge systems into the academic fields of history, African studies, and philosophy. It provides an important platform for predominantly young African scholars to engage in this debate. The contributions introduce new dimensions to the study of ubuntu and of African cosmologies more generally by engaging with innovative fields like music, journalism, or precolonial courts. The attempt to define and be concise about what ubuntu means to each contributing author at the beginning of each chapter testifies to a well-thought-through and curated book project that highlights the richness and diversity of not only ubuntu but also analogue concepts and terminologies that exist across the continent. In this sense, the authors bravely take on the task of nuancing a little-understood concept and bringing it into relation with other issues, terminologies, and world regions. The edited volume does a stellar job not only in highlighting the semantic diversity (thereby also going beyond the African continent, e.g. in chapter 6 where several examples from the Asian continent are mentioned), but also in including the discursive dimension of ubuntu and investigating how the term is used (and abused) as a rhetorical tool (see chapter 9).

The crux of writing a book about a “nebulous” concept like ubuntu (p. 14) is to strike a balance between acknowledging the challenges associated with its broadness and fuzziness and finding an angle to make a meaningful analytical contribution at the same time. Nnodim and Okigbo succeed in this endeavour by putting forward this anthology, which accommodates complexity and provides fresh perspectives through a comparative approach. However, in several instances throughout the edited volume, these challenges could have been made more explicit to further enrich the debate on how to meaningfully include African concepts into “mainstream” academia, where decolonizing processes remain patchy.

The first such a challenge is the search for a working definition. According to the introduction, ubuntu is “a form of African humanism and communalism” (p. 13) with intersubjectivity and relationality at its heart. The conclusion reiterates: “We translate Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu broadly as humanity, humanism, humanity towards others, and communal well-being” (p. 229). Throughout this edited volume, the reader is left wondering what the editors’ concrete understanding of ubuntu is, which is loosely described as a (moral) “philosophy” (p. 14) or “ethical practice” (p. 14), and by extension gives birth to “Ubuntu-grounded approaches” (p. 237) and “cultural expressions of Ubuntu” (p. 230). Of course, these (inherent) epistemological challenges pertain not exclusively to ubuntu. However, a further elaboration on these definitional difficulties that inevitably appear when engaging with a concept that is difficult to grasp precisely because it is based on primarily non-written sources would have been a highly enriching addition to this book, for example in the conclusion.

The second challenge concerns the editors’ intentional choice, mentioned in their introduction, to include “Western” scholars in the book project to make “ubuntu more understandable to non-African readers” (p. 16). It could be inferred from this that every African reader must then intrinsically know what ubuntu means. However, as the book itself shows, there also exists diversity in African interpretations. “I am because we are”: Who is the “we” in this phrase, my ancestors, or my current collective/community? Interpretations differ among African scholars and activists alike and the assumption of an “innate” or automatic (and uniform) understanding of ubuntu on the sole basis of African heritage would certainly thwart the editors’ intentions to establish ubuntu as key concept in global debates on justice.

The third challenge pertains to critical anthropology, showing us that traditions change over time. The study of “ethnic groups” (e.g. the Zulu/Nguni, p. 14), whose definition and (imagined) impermeable delineations often have a colonial origin, needs to acknowledge the impossibility of grapsing a well-defined, immutable, and transfixed group. Arguably, change also happens to traditional knowledge, if we assume philosophy to be contextually, culturally, and temporally grounded. Against this backdrop, a debate on the historicization of ubuntu would have been another helpful and enlightening addition to the book.

As a final note, although the choice of methodology (adopting a comparative approach with “Western” concepts) certainly sparks fresh debates and brings to light new linkages, it might also have done (unwillingly so) a certain disservice to the original intention of the editors to showcase the singular significance of ubuntu (“We firmly believe that Ubuntu has the potential to revolutionize Africa and the world in a positive way”, p. 238). When comparing a philosophy consisting of fragmented, diverse, and largely non-written sources to a specific, dense justice concept developed by one author (e.g. Rawl’s “justice as fairness”, chapter 2), the former will inevitably pale.

To summarize, ubuntu makes an important contribution to the fields of philosophy, (transitional) justice, and interdisciplinary African studies by bringing indigenous African concepts into academic discussions across the humanities and social sciences. The edited volume provides fresh perspectives on our understanding(s) of ubuntu, as well as its relevance for contemporary questions surrounding transitional justice interventions on the continent. It further contributes to incorporating the term more systematically into global academic debates, which is a crucial step towards decolonizing global knowledge systems. This edited volume is an essential read for students, researchers, teachers, and practitioners interested in questions related to African indigenous knowledge and how to make transitional justice work (better) on the continent today.